Garden, Plant, Cook!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Corn Planting Tips In The Desert

Dear Folks,

We are lucky enough in our desert gardens to have two planting seasons for corn.  The first planting time is quickly coming to an end (March 31st approx), so if you want to get a crop going NOW is the time.

First Make sure you purchase only heirloom or organic / naturally produced seed -- the chemical giants like Monsanto and Dow are gobbling up farms and acreage with their GMO seeds, so home growers NEED to make sure they are purchasing only Non-GMO seeds.

Pictured here is Black Aztec Sweet Corn an heirloom offered by Sweet Corn Organic Nursery out of Show Low.  They are selling at the Mesa Farmers Market (and I've purchased some of their tomato plants to jump start my tomato production following our freezing set-backs).

Off and on over the last decade I've grown corn, testing several varieties including the Black Aztec, Strawberry, and one of the bi-color sweets.

Here in the Southwest you may want to go more traditional and grow one of the blue varieties.


1) Grow ONLY one variety at a time - you are going to want to save 1 or 2 ears at the end of the crop to dry for replacement seed and they will cross if plant 2 or more varieties at the same time.

2) Forget about strict row planting only for corn because they need to pollinate each other - Plant in BLOCKS.  As my gardens have limited space when I plant a crop of corn, I usually plant single seeds approximately 6-8 inches apart -- or 12 inches apart if I'm growing something else with them - See "peas" below.

3) The soil should very well draining and fluffy with organics.  If you have a lot worms in your soil that is a good indication you have good enough soil.  Spade up and turn the soil over, and level just before planting.

4) Soak the corn seeds overnight before planting.

5) Plant the seeds 1 inch deep, firm the soil lightly over them and water in very well - even if you just watered that part of the garden.  Keep the soil surface slightly moist until you seed growth (about 2 weeks), then start backing off the watering to encourage deep roots.


Plant some sugar peas with the corn for more fun edibles and productive soil.  The peas fix nitrogen back into the soil that the corn uses up.  In the tradition of the "Three Sisters" planting concept of our Native Americans, corn, a legume and a melon or squash were all planted together in the original intentional companion planting concepts.  In return the people got a complete and balance diet of high protein (corn + beans = complete protein) and the squash provided additional vitamins and minerals.  The soil benefited too because of the nitrogen replacement of the legume and the soil canopy of the squash minimized evaporation and maximized the limited water in the arid regions.

I like sugar peas and they can be planted at the same time as the corn or just after the corn seedlings emerge.  Soak the sugar peas for 8 hours before planting.  The pea vines will grow up the natural trellis of the stalk.

As the corn and peas grow, you will have an opportunity to harvest peas before the corn.  Pick the pods regularly and you get more peas!

When growing corn the most problematic pest is the corn ear worm.  As soon as you see first silk, take an eye dropper and any vegetable (mineral oil is traditional) oil and gently insert the dropper into the base of the silk/tip of the ear and put several drops of oil in, put another drop or two of oil at the exposed silk base.  The oil keeps the moth eggs from hatching and doing their damage.

As the corn grows eventually you will see the silks darkening and then drying out.  The test is to pull back some of the husk and silk and break one of the corn kernels to see if it produces a 'milky' juice - when it does they are ready to harvest.  Old time corn farmers would yell to their wives to get the kettle water boiling and they would rush into the house with the newly harvested corn.

LEAVE 1 or 2 EARS On the stalks, and allow to completely dry out. The kernels should be as dry as the ones your originally planted.  Remove from the cob and allow to dry more if needed.  Store in paper envelopes in cool and dry conditions as you would other seed.  You can plant next spring, or if you become addicted to the corn -- plant for fall crops beginning in June/July.

If you have never had just picked corn, it is possible to eat the kernels fresh and uncooked right from the plant, they are that sweet just as picked.  The reason so much research went into producing hybrid sweet corns is that the sugars begin to wane as soon as the corn is picked, so the researchers wanted sweet corn with staying power - enter the super sweets.

Also, unfortunately, chemical laboratories which wanted to produce franken-corn that would kill the corn worms from the inside by genticially producing corn seeds which contain insecticides.

Cooking Tips:  Instead of boiling - a perfectly fine way of cooking too -- grill your corn - as with all vegetables roasted or grilled the super hot cooking process condenses all the sugars for super taste.


To roast or grill corn, you want to gently pull back the husks, remove the silks, pull the husks back over the corn, soak a few minutes in water and toss on the grill.  (You can also make flavored butters to brush on before replacing the husks or after you pull them off the grill.)

SAVE THE SILK - I love recycling particularly when you get to use some food part you might otherwise through away.  Make corn silk tea!  An old 'herb' remedy for arthritis and bladder infections (and a new one to me - I'm always learning something!), I happened to catch the reference in Jan/Feb 2011 issue of Food Network magazine.  Chef Jeff Smedstad of Elote Cafe in Sedona, runs through a couple of hundred ears of corn each night and saves the silks to brew up some tea for his staffs' stiff and achy joints.  Way to go Chef Smedstad! (2/3 cup of silk, 16 oz of water.  Simmer 10 minutes and strain - you can also add a bit of lemon and honey to taste.)

BACK TO THE PEAS - if you chose to grow the sugar peas with the corn, continue to harvest the peas until they stop producing.  Allow the pea vines to dry out completely before removing (this makes sure the available nitrogen gets fully into the soil - or turn the vines back into the soil with a pitchfork).  Pull the corn stalks when you are finished harvesting all the corn and 'seed' ears.

I hope you enjoy your patch of corn and beans! And, don't forget the silk tea for all those gardeners' aches.

-- Catherine, The Herb Lady

1 comment:

Sweet Life Garden said...

What a great post, I think I'm going to try this. Thanks for sharing with us! Jill